Stolen Focus by Johann Hari is a good book. It’s a thoughtful and comprehensive take on the very important topic of individual attention. Unlike similar books such as Rapt and Deep Work, Hari gives considerable thought to the social and environmental factors influencing attention. This is good because it firmly sets the individual’s actions within the larger environment. He claims that both matter.
A quick note of focus
Before considering my interpretation of the author’s engagement of individual/environmental effects on focus, it’s worth noting the significance of this property we all hold.
In a very course sense, we are all a product of our innate foundation (genes and evolutionary experiences) and the cumulative effects of the experiences that we participate in. One of those things we can’t control. We’ve evolved as mammals in small groups of mostly family members hunting, gathering, and moving across the landscape. That past shapes us in more ways than we give it credit, but it doesn’t determine our actions.
We have the power through our abilities to observe, engage, and decipher the world to steer our ships in directions that accentuate or drive against our evolutionary history. All these abilities require that we focus on something. It’s our most potent filter and magnifier of our world. There is a great deal of truth in the statement that “What you pay attention to changes you”. Given that focus is our tool for shaping our experience, we should care a lot about it. If you are not choosing what to pay attention to, something else is. Attention is yours; it is valuable, so don’t give it away lightly.
Individual Actions Matter
Without a doubt, the people with the best abilities to focus do so because of the effort they put into practicing this skill. Hari structures his book not around how to get better at focusing directly but rather on the external/internal factors that impact an individual’s ability to focus. From hearing the cause in detail, you can derive some actions or practices to help you work against these forces. It’s clear that some of these factors are directed at individual actions. The Collapse of Sustained Reading; reading more will help with this, and that is something individuals have to do themselves.
On the other side, some chapters are very much focused on the role of the environment on individual actions. The Rise of Technology that can Track and Manipulate You; inherently implies powers beyond the control of any individual. Hari still supports the message that the individual can and should choose to abstain, block, or limit their exposure, but those choices are a momentary stop to a technology that is still present tomorrow. The individual will be exposed to circumstances requiring them to make that choice repeatedly. The individual is still responsible for making a choice but there is a deep question of the value of allowing that external force that requires them to make those choices.
Hari addresses this big question by evaluating social media, surveillance capitalism, and other cultural norms that impact our ability to pay attention. In the chapter The Rise of Cruel Optimism, he describes the deflecting effect of hearing simple solutions to challenging problems. It’s a complex topic to bring up because there is so much circumstantial consideration around it, but still, he engages with it. This is an admirable bridge to build.
Environment Factors matter
It’s odd to even place these two headers one after another. Life is not something that falls wholly into a single box. It’s a complex thing that is affected by a series of interlocked and changing relationships. There are arguments to make for the relative impacts of individual actions verse environmental forces, but they both matter.
The attractiveness of simple statements like “Individuals just need to turn off their phone if they want to avoid social media” is that they can be conveyed quickly with authority and are often truthful and helpful. Once you start discussing multiple parameters, it becomes more challenging to discuss the topic succinctly.
So yes, individuals have control over their own actions. They can and should do a lot to keep moving in their perceived positive direction. They are also beings in an encompassing system that they can not directly control. Hari best described this balance in the chapter titled: The Rise of ADHD and How we are Responding to it.
ADHD is real and is the diagnosed term used to describe individuals with difficulties paying attention. Hari does a great job presenting claims relating the benefits of the medical treatment and the consequences of it. Most importantly, he talks about the environmental conditions correlated with ADHD prevalence. Stress in the home environment leads to a biologically enforced vigilance state. The medical treatment of this state may still be helpful, but it’s not getting to the cause.
Whatever the cause, not being able to pay attention puts you in a hard place with no miracle answers. Acknowledging that and appreciating the range of options is what makes this style of writing worth engaging with. It’s a lot less about one size fits all solutions and much more about getting a feeling of the swarming lines of thoughts and ideas surrounding this complex and personal topic-->